There’s two new books about the fall of the Roman Empire: Bryan Ward-Perkins The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization; and
Peter Heather, The Fall of the Roman Empire.

These historians were intereviewed here. Part I and Part II. Both argue against the new revisionist histories which claim that the Roman Empire was culturally transformed by Germanic Migrations. The archeological evidence says otherwise. The Roman Empire fell due to the invasions and its sophisticated economy collapsed.

The term “Late Antiquity” is the new euphemism for the Dark Ages. One such historian is Julia Smith who wrote Europe After Rome: A New Cultural History.

These cultural historians always exclude archeological evidence and studies of the quantitative histories. Cultural historians ignore the collapse of the Roman economy, the decline of cities and manufacturing, and the extreme poverty of the Dark Ages, and instead praise the spread of Christianity, mysticism, and rural agricultural lifestyles.

Peter Heather:

Where I do part company with some revisionist scholarship, however, is over the argument that, because some Roman institutions ideologies and elites survived beyond 476, therefore the fall of the western Empire was not a revolutionary moment in European history. The most influential statement of this, perhaps, is Walter Goffart’s brilliant aphorism that the fall of the Western Empire was just ‘an imaginative experiment that got a little out of hand’. Goffart means that changes in Roman policy towards the barbarians led to the emergence of the successor states, dependant on barbarian military power and incorporating Roman institutions, and that the process which brought this out was not a particularly violent one.

The idea of a cultural transformation obscures that Rome fell over century of extreme and constant warfare.

Despite some assertions to the contrary, the central empire did not give up land voluntarily to the immigrant groups around whom the successor states formed. Every act of immigration except the first, in 376, was opposed to the best of the Empire’s strength, and even that was an attempt to make the best of an impossible situation. Likewise, every subsequent attempt by the immigrants to expand their position was resisted with determination, and for very good reason. Every loss of territory to an outside group represented a loss of vital, agricultural, tax base, and therefore of the Empire’s capacity to maintain its armies.

What emerges from all this is that the central Empire did not pass away quietly but was fought to extinction over a 70 year period of intense struggle.

Both historians argue against the old idea that Rome declined before the fall. The Roman economy was healthy and the internal political system was more stable than it had been in earlier periods.

Gibbon’s old thesis was that Christianity made Romans more peaceful and weak – that never made much sense since Christian Germans conquered the Romans, while the Christian Greeks of the Eastern Roman Empire lasted another thousand years.

Peter Heather best describes the military fall of the Roman Empire. Exogenous shocks from the rise of the Sassinid Dynasty, the Germans and the Huns profoundly threatened Roman power.

Bryan Ward-Perkins systhesizes the archeological evidence and describes the aftermath of the fall. He calls it the “end of complexity.” The Roman Economy was so advanced, Europeans did not reach the same level of production until 1500, almost a thousand years after the fall. Europeans are, perhaps, unwilling to acknowledge how backwards the Dark Ages really were. Britain, for instance, was virtually plunged into a Pre-Iron Age economy following the fall of the Western Roman Empire. It’s almost incomprehensible, but the evidence says this is what happened.

Ward Perkins:

My book, and this is its major novelty, concentrates on the impact of the fall of the West on daily life, as revealed by a mass of new archaeological research over the last few decades…. I argue what is currently an unfashionable view (though, in my opinion, it is blindingly obvious) – that the Roman world brought remarkable levels of sophistication and comfort, and spread them widely in society (and not just to a tiny elite); and that the fall of Rome saw the dismantling of this complexity, and a return to what can reasonably be termed ‘prehistoric’ levels of material comfort. Furthermore, I believe that this change was not just at the level of pots and pans, important though these are, but also affected sophisticated skills like reading and writing. Pompeii, with its ubiquitous inscriptions, painted signs, and graffiti, was a city that revolved around writing – after the fall of the empire, the same cannot be said for any settlement in the West for many centuries to come.

I recommend caution in praising ‘Civilizations’ (whether Roman, or our own), and I do emphasize that ‘civilizations’ have their downsides. But, equally, I think the current fashion for treating all cultures as essentially the same – and all dramatic changes (like the end of the Roman world) as mere ‘transformations’ from one system, to another equally valid one – is not only wrong, but also dangerous. It evens out the dramatic ups and downs of human history, into a smooth trajectory. This risks blinding us to the fact that things have often gone terribly wrong in the past, and to the near certainty that, in time, our own ‘civilization’, and the comforts we enjoy from it, will also collapse.

Indeed, the common Roman man in Britain had a higher standard of living than the Anglo-Saxon Kings did two centuries later. The Fall of Rome destroyed the Mediterranean economy of scale. Specialists disappeared – everyone returned to a “do-it-yourself” economy auturky. Without comparative advantage, production drastically declined, impoverishing everyone.

To ignore this and talk about “culture”? It’s almost insulting.

Many of the best historians are now studying the Eastern Roman Empire. This allowed mediocre cultural historians and post-modernists to “revise” the history of Rome to create a brand new narrative – one without much evidence, but who needs evidence in history?

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